New Korean gangster comedy, For The Glory Of Our Family (pictured) looks like it could be a contender for the new local all-time box-office crown. But the relative success of its performance pales in comparison with the recent disastrous failure of local mega-budget title: Resurrection Of The Little Match Girl.
One major beneficiary of Korea's recent national holiday: Chusok, was Cinema Service's For The Glory Of Our Family, about a young law graduate who wakes up to discover the daughter of a gang boss in bed with him. The film grossed $10.4m nationwide after just 10 days on release, leading many to speculate it might overtake current local record holder The Way Home's $22m take. Indeed, after three weeks on release, the film has reached a national total gross of $15.7m from 2,962,000 admissions. In Seoul, the film's performance of 930,212 admissions after three weeks already places it in the all-time top-performing top ten (see chart below).
Costing $3.2m including p&a costs, For The Glory Of Our Family will be the second major money-maker of the year for Cinema Service after Kang Woo-suk's Public Enemy, which grossed $16m in February.
Also performing well over the local holiday period was Lovers' Concerto, a melodrama distributed by Korea Pictures and starring Cha Tae-hyun, the male lead from 2001 smash hit My Sassy Girl. Nationwide Concerto has grossed $4.6m in ten days.
In stark contrast, Jang Sun-woo's cyber-action film Resurrection Of The Little Match Girl has proved a spectacular commercial failure for distributor CJ Entertainment and financier Tube Entertainment. At $9.2m Resurrection is the most expensive live-action film in Korean history - but the movie's fractured narrative and cryptic references have confused and frustrated viewers, and the film grossed just $750,000 after 10 days.
The disappointment of Resurrection's performance could herald the end of a spectacular run of expensive local productions where the risk paid off handsomely. The groundbreaking success of action blockbuster Shiri transformed the Korean industry in 1999, ushering in a new crop of big-budget genre pictures that aimed to provide Hollywood-level thrills and effects at a fraction of the budget.
Over the past few years a number of such films including JSA and Musa have found success, but after the spectacular box-office failures of three hugely ambitious genre titles this year, many are beginning to question the future of the Korean blockbuster.
The three films in question - Yesterday (budget: $5m), Are You Ready' ($6.7m), and Resurrection Of The Little Match Girl ($9.2m) - have all resulted in large losses for investors.
Yesterday, a futuristic sci-fi film, opened at a disappointing third place at the box-office in June and earned $2m over three weeks. Family adventure Are You Ready' was positioned as one of the prestige releases of the summer, but opened at number seven in the local chart and fell out of the top ten a week later, having earned a mere $500,000.
Most recently, Resurrection Of The Little Match Girl, Korea's most expensive live-action film in history, opened on September 13 during Chusok, Korea's harvest moon holiday and a prime launch pad for autumn releases.
But despite high expectations, the film grossed a paltry $400,000 in three days to land at number seven in the weekly charts, compared to the $3.2m earned by gangster comedy For The Glory Of Our Family.
Now it appears that most of the new projects announced in recent months - with a few notable exceptions - are relying more on stars and storyline than expensive special effects.
One example is Classic, the latest effort by My Sassy Girl director Kwak Jae-yong. Produced by EGG Films and backed by Cinema Service, this love story starring up-and-coming actors Cho Seung-woo and Son Yeh-jin will hope to recapture some of the magic that made My Sassy Girl a hit across Asia. Meanwhile Jeon Ji-hyun, the star of that film, has announced her next project, an occult ghost story whose title translates as Table For Four. The film will be directed by Lee Su-yeon, one of an increasing number of women directors making their debut with mainstream commercial titles. Both films are expected to be complete in the first half of 2003.
The writing and directing team behind local box-office smashes Attack The Gas Station and Kick The Moon will return this fall with their new comedy Jail Breakers, about two convicts who break out of prison, then try to break back in.
With the acting duo of Cha Seung-won from Kick The Moon and Sol Kyung-gu, at the height of his popularity after lead roles in local smash Public Enemy and the award-winning Oasis, the film seems a decent bet for commercial success.
One exception to the move away from blockbusters comes from the man who started it all: Kang Je-gyu, the director of Shiri. His long-awaited follow-up is a story about two brothers set during the Korean War, and is scheduled to commence shooting this fall. With Kang's production company estimating a budget in the range of $10m-$15m, it will have to top charts both in Korea and other Asian countries in order to be judged a success. On the upside, given lead actors Won Bin and Jang Dong-gun's fan base in Japan and Southeast Asia, it just might do that.
One more film hoping to win fans back to the blockbuster will be Double Agent, the return of star actor Han Suk-gyu (Shiri, Tell Me Something) after a three year hiatus. A Cold War spy story set in the 1980s, the comparatively modestly budgeted $3.3m production will shoot in the Czech Republic and Buenos Aires. Currently in production, the film is scheduled for a release this winter.
Kim Seung-bum of Tube Entertainment believes that there is still life in the Korean blockbuster, noting "The risk is greater, but so are the possibilities." Kim points to the evolving market for product placement and merchandise tie-ins to help diversify risk. Yet it is worth noting that Tube's biggest hit ever was a modestly-budgeted $2m film about a boy and his grandmother titled The Way Home.
Top Ten Korean Films, Seoul admissions
1. Friend (2001), Korea Pictures - 2,579,900
2. Shiri (1999), Samsung Entertainment - 2,448,399
3. JSA (2000), CJ Entertainment - 2,447,133
4. My Sassy Girl (2001), Cinema Service/IM Pictures - 1,765,100
5. Kick The Moon (2001), Cinema Service - 1,605,200
6. The Way Home (2002), CJ Entertainment - 1,596,521
7. My Wife Is A Gangster (2001), Korea Pictures - 1,309,860
8. Public Enemy (2002), Cinema Service - 1,161,500
9. Sopyonje (1993), Taehung Pictures - 1,035,741
10. Attack The Gas Station (1999), Cinema Service - 905,500
NB For The Glory Of Our Family (2002) Cinema Service - 930,212 after three weeks in Seoul